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By Fr. Chris Pietraszko
When I was in seminary, I had developed a scholarly affection for the Church’s teaching on Mary. Having been involved in apologetics through social media, I was capable of understanding and comprehending why Mary was honoured with great intensity within the Catholic tradition. Protestant objections did not phase my faith in the Catholic Dogma around Mary.
However, I always felt as if something was nonetheless lacking with my understanding, as if I had this nagging sensation that my understanding lacked depth. At best, my relationship with Mary was ideological, and even then, I hadn’t yet crystallized my theological understanding of her importance. This still continues to develop in my on-going study of the Catholic faith.
But what was more seriously lacking was my relationship with Mary and therefore Jesus. It was somewhat of an embarrassing thing to admit, especially to my brother seminarians who seemed to be rather devout in their relationship with Mary. Their perpetual praying of the rosary, images of her on their wall, and many other external behaviour and demonstrations of affection towards her.
Every time I witnessed their faith in Christ through Mary I found myself perplexed, knowing that I understood what they meant by it all, and its importance, but being unable to tap into this type of devotion. For me, a devotion to Mary was correlated with holiness and a sincere love of the Catholic Faith. However, there was a failure to integrate Mary into the heart of my worship of God.
And to admit that I had failed in this regard made me feel as if I was a bad seminarian, and somehow a fraud to the Catholic Tradition. While these feelings were discouraging, they nonetheless were grounded in something nonetheless true: I had yet to know from the heart our Blessed Mother.
Finally I managed to gather the strength and discuss this with my Spiritual Director while enrolled in my Theological Studies. At the conclusion of every year in our theology-studies the seminarians would take the time out for a silent-long retreat. My spiritual director would always ask in advance: “Think of a particular grace you would like to receive during this retreat.”
That nagging feeling overcame me, where I knew I had to ask for a deeper understanding of our Catholic Tradition in having a relationship with God through Mary. My heart didn’t understand how to relate to her, although my head understood the external practice and devotions. My spiritual director seemed excited at the prospect of my exploration of a relationship with Mary, utilizing the Ignatius Spiritual exercises and deep meditation from the Word of God.
The thing about these silent retreats is that graces are difficult to escape, especially if our conscience is well formed. We must be honest with our spiritual director, and we must faithfully obey him as we would obey Christ in our spiritual exercises. Here I had put myself into the desert of my own ignorance and sought to discover the magnifying glass which teaches me about her Son.
My First Encounter with the Mother of God
As I spent time in quiet meditation, I began to imagine myself walking on the coast of a lake, with Mary. She pointed towards the waters, and asked me: “What do you see?” I responded, “Waves.” She smiled and then in a spirit of instruction stated: “The light doesn’t pass through the waves, so you cannot see to the bottom of the lake. You cannot see what is at the bottom.” I immediately understood what she was implying, the waves represented my fears, anxieties, and worldly concerns.
As soon as this realization dawned upon me, the waters calmed and rays of light broke through the surface of the water, and now I could see through it, as though the water magnified and clarified the surface of the lake. This was not an experience that gave me any feeling of peace, but rather it challenged me to seek out inner-peace that comes from a deeper surrender to God’s own will. I was left challenged by our blessed mother.
Mary never made it about her. She did not point to me, nor to herself. Rather she sought to facilitate a situation where the very Light of the World would penetrate the depths of what He sought.
My second encounter with our Blessed Mother involved me arriving at a somewhat run-down house. My imagination seems to be a powerful tool that the Holy Spirit can use in prayer. It was not led by me or my own imagining, but seemed instead to be like a movie flashing before my eyes, nonetheless I remained an active participant within it.
And as I walked towards this house, I saw Mary holding two garbage bags. She was asking for help, and looking at me. She had apparently been cleaning up the house, but expected me to assist her. The garbage smelt terrible, at least that is how I had seemed to react to it. Jesus than entered the scene, and I became an observer of their interactions with each other. Jesus grabbed the garbage bag from his Mother, and I held onto another bag. Jesus put it into a garbage can and gestured to me to do the same.
“Your house is now clean!”
Jesus stated to me – and I with a gesture of surprise realized immediately that the garbage that stunk, were representative of my own personal sins. Mary was there to help me clean the house. It brought me back to a rather embarrassing moment when I was a child. My room was often a mess, and when it would become more than an hour-job to clean my parents would help me clean it.
That sounds generous of them, but keep in mind, for me it was humiliating. They would see everything I had shoved under my bed, and item by item I would receive either a frown or a lecture. My parents were not unreasonable in the way they went about helping me clean my room. But the humiliation of seeing the fruits of sheer laziness was challenging to experience.
That exact feeling came into my heart when I realized that Mary had been looking through all of my sins, and was intent on throwing them out of my house, which as now you realize, represented my soul. Mary brought them to light, she in a sense magnified the truth about my sin, and ultimately had me cooperate with Christ in throwing them into the garbage can, where they would be forgotten, forgiven.
Mary without harshness and nonetheless firm resolve sought to purify my soul out of love for me. She was willing to inspect, touch, and discuss my sinfulness. Not with harsh condemnation, but rather with a desire to liberate my stinky soul and make it into a place where both Jesus, Mary and I could eat a meal together in enjoyment.
After these encounters with our blessed mother, I realized I had a lot to ponder and allow to sink in. However, the consolation I sought, that I saw on so many faces of my brother seminarians continued to lack in my own prayer to Mary. I was getting somewhat frustrated. At this point, most of what Mary had done for me was instruct me. But I had not yet interiorized these encounters on the level of my own affect.
It wasn’t until a very dry period of prayer, where I experienced no image or scene to facilitate a deeper understanding. With reluctance and frustration I then began to pray a specific prayer my Spiritual Director encouraged me to pray:
Loving mother of the Redeemer, gate of heaven, star of the sea,
assist your people who have fallen yet strive to rise again.
To the wonderment of nature you bore your Creator,
yet remained a virgin after as before.
You who received Gabriel’s joyful greeting,
have pity on us poor sinners.
While I was praying this particular prayer, my spirit was entirely overcome with incredible peace. It was as if every muscle in my heart relaxed as if it had been tensed up for years. Everything in my body rested, and an incredible peace overcame me. Without ignorance, I knew at that moment my soul had not only nominally received our Blessed Mother by adoption, but in truth and spirit. Just as St. John took Mary into his own home, now Mary was welcome in my own soul. Yet the peace I felt was from none other than Jesus Himself. It was as if the two dined in my soul, and yet it was the result of Mary’s “yes.” Jesus had proposed this encounter, Mary said “Yes” and the saviour was more abundantly born within my soul.
Ever since this experience I understood at a deeper level the entangled relationship that happens between the Saints, God and the living. God collaborates with the Saints. They reach out to us, more often than we realize, yet it is all provoked and suggested by God. God makes His will contingent on the “yes” of others.
Although they could all say no, and God could more directly reach out to us, this simply isn’t how God’s providence organizes matters. You see, he seeks to weave the community together in and through Him. In theological language we might say that God’s grace is all-sufficient, but our cooperation is nonetheless necessary.
On its own, man cannot cooperate with God without His help, his proposal, and therefore His grace. But by his will, he wants us to not only cooperate in our own salvation, but in the salvation of others. You see, Jesus gave his Church a mission, and that mission is to baptize others, preach, and bind and loose. As the Father sent Jesus, so He sends us!
All of this is answered perfectly by Mary, and thus becomes the supreme example of how to “respond” to Jesus. Mary is not the initiator of graces, that belongs to God alone, but she is always the first-responder to God’s proposal, our great advocate. All the terms that are often said of God can be attributed to Mary, not because she is equal to God, but rather that as a result of cooperating with God, she has become more concretely His hands and feet by grace.
This theological distinction is so key in understanding our relationship with Christ. IF we love Christ, we are not going to ignore his designs. Rather we are going to love what he loved and hate what he hates. Christ seeks to use the faithful response of others to bring about our salvation. Consider the paralytic man who was lowered to the feet of Jesus. It was because of their faith that his sins were forgiven. Think of Lazarus, who was resurrected by Jesus but unbound by the crowd.
Mary therefore becomes a living icon of the Church herself. She is that benevolent mother who opens her arms to Christ for the sake of Him and the whole world.
I am currently traveling to Fatima for the first time, where Mary concretely reached out to the Catholic Church and all of humanity to remind us of the serious need to remember judgment and the dangers of damnation. She cares for us – and she gave this message to children. 100 years later, I suppose the question is: have we listened? If not – have we ignored our Mother who was sent by Christ Himself to speak with us? IF we ignore her, we ignore Him who sent her.